The Letters Page Vol. 6, #2: Where the Vines Will Climb
It would be an understatement to say that over the pandemic people came to appreciate being outside a lot more, an appreciation that Grug Muse articulates in this month’s letter. Taking us from Wales, to Belgrade, and all the way back to Nottingham, Muse writes to us about gardens and their meanings as places of community and growth.
From Caernarfon, north Wales, Grug Muse is a poet, editor and researcher. Back in 2017, she published her first poetry collection titled Ar Ddisberod. More recently, she has been the co-editor – along with Darren Chetty, a previous contributor to The Letters Page, Hanan Issa, and Iestyn Tyne – of Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales, which discusses topics around Welsh identity in the past and today, challenging the cliches and binaries that have defined Welshness throughout the history of Wales.
By way of thanks, Grug Muse will receive a year’s subscription to The Tangerine, our favourite Belfast-based literary journal.
We hope this letter finds you. Do write, and let us know how things are where you are.
During the lockdowns, I regularly dreamed of gardens. Not because I was deprived of one, unlike the millions confined to concrete and windowsill during those pandemic springs. I was living then with my parents, in a rural part of north Wales, with a large garden and an expanse of common land that I could freely access.
What seemed important about these dream gardens was that they were inhabited. They had gardeners, who were always my friends. My friends are not gardeners outside these garden dreams, even though I think some of them would like to be. In these dreams we would walk around the gardens, which would have the air of a large tropical greenhouse, like the botanical garden at Singleton Park, Swansea, or the Orangery at Wollaton Park, Nottingham. The close, warm air and that quality that the light gets when it falls through glass and leafy membrane.
In my pandemic dream gardens I would walk with my friends, the gardeners, and we would talk. They would offer me cool glasses of water, as if I was one of the plants that they were caring for.
I am writing this letter from the Ботаничка башта Јевремовац, otherwise known as the University of Belgrade’s Institutue of Botany and Botanical Garden Jevremovac. It is a large garden in Belgrade and home to a big greenhouse with two wings, one tropical and full of ferns and orchids, and the second arid, full of cactii and succulents.
Entry is 300 dinar (£2ish), and the edges of the park are overgrown with wild garlic and wild flowers that I don’t recognise but are tall with yellow flowers and bright lime leaves.
The glass house is the main attraction however, and visitors seem to have two main approaches to how they experience the place, at macro or micro level. The first group take the greenhouse in as a whole, themselves a part of the whole, along with light and architecture and texture and shape. They move quickly, gathering impressions, taking many pictures. Then, there are those who move slowly, acquainting themselves with each plant individually, noting its name, form and colour, the way each frond or petal twists and curls. They rarely raise their heads, and get in the way of the photographers.
Gardens, dreamed, photographed or otherwise, seem to be spaces always of fantasy and escapism. When you visit a garden centre or scroll through a Pinterest board or Instagram account you are not just being sold plant and spade, you are being sold a complete world – a fantasy and aspiration. The houseplants so beloved of millennial renters are not simply plants – they signify care and control and family to a generation for whom home ownership is an unlikely prospect. The community veg patch is not simply an assortment of wispy leeks and crusty lettuces, it is a revolution, it signifies food justice and empowerment and communion. A garden is constantly emerging, it is never ‘complete,’ and so the dream (technically) never has to end.
This spring, for the first time, I have a garden of my own to tend. It is a patioed yard with some unwieldy shrubs, but it is mine. I spend January to April poring through online seed catalogues; I read about soil structure and seed saving. I learn the names of my favourite plants – sweet peas, calendula, and lupin. I find old pallets and lean them against the south-facing walls. I find compost bins and a water butt, I spend a small fortune on compost and pots. I plant peas that do well then mysteriously start dying, so I replace them with nasturtiums. High winds kill my nasturtiums; I try again with kale.
It is almost May, and we are at the cusp of things exploding into life. In my mind’s eye I can see where the vines will climb, where scented leaves will burst, where big blooms in purple, blue and orange will sway. I can see where my friends will sit in dappled sunlight, holding cool glasses of water.
On that note, here in Belgrade it is very hot, and I’m going to get something cool from the café, named very appropriately ‘Calendula’ [календула].
The Letters Page team are back in the office, and ready to read your real letters again. We publish stories, essays, poems, memoir, reportage, criticism, recipes, travelogue, and any hybrid forms, so long as they come to us in the form of a letter. We are looking for writers of all nationalities and ages, both established and emerging.
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